Debates about rehiring retired federal workers permit agencies to evade tough questions.

Debates about rehiring retired federal workers permit agencies to evade tough questions. sorbetto/Getty Images

Bringing Federal Retirees Back Might Do More Harm Than Good. Here’s Why.

COMMENTARY | There are better ways to build, sustain and grow the federal workforce long-term than rehiring those who have already left it, one writer argues.

Some have argued that rehiring retirees would be one good way for federal agencies to staff hard-to-fill or critical positions.. However, it could be opening Pandora’s box to rehire federal retirees on a mass scale, as there are numerous ethical, legal and practical issues to navigate. Here are some things to consider.

Rehiring retirees can raise ethical issues: One key problem that sometimes emerges in state and local government is the phenomenon of “double dipping.” This occurs when someone retires but then goes back to work for the same employer or for a related employer such as a contractor or consultant with the agency or another state/local government agency in the same pension system. While not every case of double dipping or similar practices is necessarily unethical or inappropriate, the practice can raise questions about how an agency is hiring and promoting and certainly is negatively perceived by many legislators and members of the public. State and local systems have moved over the years to limit the practice. It may be a mistake to open a door in the federal sector that other levels of government are moving to close by rehiring retirees who previously left the federal system.

Rehiring retirees disincentivizes agencies from hiring and training new workers: It is no secret that the federal sector is having a tough time hiring younger workers. More than 40% of federal workers are age 50 and older.  Rehiring retirees will certainly not resolve longstanding problems with succession planning as agencies may have fewer incentives to train, plan and hire for the future if they can simply rehire retirees.

Rehiring retirees may drive favoritism and cronyism: According to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which studied the issue in 2013, roughly 25% of federal workers perceived favoritism as a challenge in their workplace, MSPB defined favoritism as “occur[ing] when supervisors or managers base decisions regarding current or prospective employees on personal feelings and/or relationships and not on objective criteria, such as assessments of ability, knowledge, and skills.” Rehiring a retiree known to agency staff and managers may not always reflect favoritism. But at the same time hiring a retiree for a new vacancy or displacing current staff from their position to make way for a rehired retiree, could be perceived as favoritism and seems hard to justify if new or current employees can do the job.

Rehiring retirees does nothing to address age discrimination in the federal sector: While the federal system in general skews older, those older than 40 can face discrimination in the federal as well as private sector. According to the Office of Personnel Management’s Retirement Statistics & Trend Analysis, the average retirement age for federal employees in 2019 was roughly 61.8 years old. This is broadly similar to the median retirement age for state and local government workers, but somewhat lower than that typical in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One reason why some people retire,  including in the federal sector, is age discrimination. Despite the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and other federal laws that may apply in some cases such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is fairly clear that the federal sector is not immune from age discrimination and biases that impact hiring, recruitment and promotion. In fiscal year 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted age discrimination was cited as a factor in nearly one-third of federal sector discrimination complaints. In 2020, the Supreme Court decided a case based on this issue. Some employees may feel compelled to retire before they really are ready or are never hired in the first place because a human resource staff member or hiring manager thinks they are “too old.” Perhaps rather than rehiring retired employees, we instead should ask why they are leaving their agencies at a relatively young age in the first place.

Debates about rehiring retired federal workers permit agencies to evade tough questions about hiring, promotion, retainment, succession planning and job satisfaction that should apply to all workers, whatever their age or other demographic group. No doubt in some cases bringing federal retirees back into the federal sector may make good sense both for an agency and the taxpayer. But there are, on the whole, better ways to build, sustain and grow the federal workforce long-term than rehiring those who have already left it.

Mitchell Berger has worked on public health and behavioral health programs at the federal and local levels and contributed to strategic planning and quality improvement activities.